Culture

The Politics of Anti-anti-Semitism

Judy Pogachefsky reacts to toppled headstones at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia, Pa. (Reuters photo: Tom Mihalek)
The sudden interest in the desecration of Jewish cemeteries is welcome, but it has a whiff of hypocrisy and cynicism.

It’s not one of my earliest memories but it’s among the most vivid. My Uncle Irving, an auto mechanic who lived in the South Bronx, was driving us down the Grand Concourse. It was sometime in the late 1960s and he, my aunt, and my dad were talking about something that really teed them off.

Some vandals, never caught, their acts ignored by the press, had overturned tombstones at the Washington Cemetery, an old Jewish burial ground in Brooklyn. Porcelain photographs of the deceased, which were commonly embedded in tombstones in the early part of the century, were gleefully smashed. My uncle’s parents were buried there. I don’t recall if their graves were desecrated. I only remember the rage. My uncle talked about hiding in wait some evening—with a shotgun.

Today, a spate of anti-Semitic incidents has received justifiably massive media attention and across-the-board societal condemnation. The overturning of 200 tombstones at a cemetery outside St. Louis received widespread attention, including a double-bylined article in the New York Times. A Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia was attacked over the weekend. There are calls for the FBI to investigate a wave of threats against Jewish community centers. President Trump, after widely denounced hesitation, has attacked anti-Semitism by name, a reluctance that was condemned even after he finally uttered the words. The incidents have been widely perceived as inspired by his administration’s bigotry, by the anti-Semitism that supposedly lurks beneath the surface of his presidency.

That may be so. And I’m heartened by this sudden focus on anti-Semitism—at least when it is perceived as originating from the right. Yet somehow, I find myself uneasy. Something isn’t quite right. Something . . . well, as my Uncle Irving would have put it, something stinks. It’s the stench of cynicism, of rank hypocrisy, and of media double standards.  

The press was largely uninterested in December 2010, when 200 tombstones were overturned—an assault just as large as the one in St. Louis—at the aforementioned Washington Cemetery in Brooklyn. There were no fundraisers by Muslim-Americans or anybody. It was covered by the New York Post and Brooklyn weeklies but otherwise largely ignored. Not a word in the Times. To be sure, this was not part of a “wave” of anti-Semitism, such as we have seen. Still, 200 tombstones is 200 tombstones. Two hundred families traumatized, assuming they knew. Not even worth a paragraph?

RELATED: What’s Behind the Rash of Anti-Semitic Incidents

More recently, outside the pro-Israel echo chamber there was little interest in February 2015, when President Obama said—and his spokesman reiterated—that the attack on a Jewish grocery in Paris by Islamist terrorists was just a “random” attack on a bunch of “folks.” I doubt very much that the press would have accepted such mumbo-jumbo from Donald Trump or Sean Spicer.

Similarly, I have to wonder if Steve Bannon would still be in the White House if the allegations of anti-Semitism concerning him were half as serious as the ones that have dogged Keith Ellison. There has been coverage of Ellison’s statements and ties, to be sure, but nothing approaching the feeding frenzy that has pursued Bannon.

Anti-Semitism has become politicized, and has become entwined in the widespread disdain for No. 45.

The reason, I would suggest, is that anti-Semitism has become politicized, and has become entwined in the widespread disdain for No. 45. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not help by eagerly endorsing the alleged pro-Semitic qualities of Donald Trump at one of the two news conferences in which Trump ducked questions about anti-Semitism. Those comments might help Bibi deal with the egomaniac in the Oval Office, but he antagonized Jewish Americans who have well-grounded concerns about Trump’s seeming indifference to anti-Semitism. Netanyahu also put defenders of Israel in an awkward position by embracing not just Trump but his coterie of right-wing advisers. He might have been well advised to adhere to the Hebrew school admonition, “sheket, bevakasha!” That brings me to the other reason I’m feeling uneasy. It’s the way people who make me feel uneasy are jumping on the anti-anti-Semitism bandwagon.

In a statement, the American Studies Association said that it “strongly reproves the recent wave of attacks on synagogues, mosques, and religious community centers in North America and on the Jewish and Islamic people using those institutions.” The ASA, of course, is widely known not for “reproving” anti-Semitism but quite the opposite, a widely condemned resolution boycotting Israeli academics—a singling out of the Jewish state as part of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which has been denounced as anti-Semitic. Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American activist who “makes no secret of her opposition to Israel and support of BDS,” has raised significant money for the St. Louis cemetery—and believe you me, she is not keeping it a secret.

Yes it’s possible that Sarsour and the ASA are just bubbling over with empathy for the Jewish community that they have never shown for the Jewish state. It’s also possible that they are cynically exploiting the wave of anti-Semitism as political cover for their BDS advocacy. I lean toward the latter theory. It’s a bit like “Jew-washing”—the use of Jewish supporters in anti-Israel agitation—except that in this instance the Jews are safely dead.

Hard-pressed cemeteries are not going to turn down thousands of bucks, regardless of the motives of the donors. One can’t fault the cemeteries targeted by tombstone-topplers for holding their noses and taking whatever donations are given. But I’m reasonably sure what my Uncle Irving would have said if his parents’ cemetery was the target of a propaganda ploy. He’d have told them to keep their money. And he’d have suggested what they could do with it.

— Gary Weiss is a New York-based investigative journalist and author. Follow him on Twitter at @gary_weiss.

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